The week in TV: Truelove; Mr Bates vs the Post Office; The Traitors; The Tourist – review

<span>Photograph: James Pardon/CHANNEL 4/BBC Studios/Clerkenwell</span>
Photograph: James Pardon/CHANNEL 4/BBC Studios/Clerkenwell

Truelove (Channel 4) |
Mr Bates vs the Post Office (ITV1) |
The Traitors (BBC One) | iPlayer
The Tourist (BBC One) | iPlayer

Assisted dying has been hitting the headlines recently: parliamentary rumblings; Esther Rantzen, who has stage 4 lung cancer, telling Radio 4’s Today programme she might “buzz off to Switzerland”; Rachael Stirling’s moving account of her late mother, Diana Rigg, making impassioned recordings advocating “true agency at the end of life”. Now Charlie Covell and Iain Weatherby’s six-part Channel 4 drama Truelove focuses on assisted dying too, though not quite in the way you’d expect.

It opens with Phil (Lindsay Duncan), a retired police detective, dismantling a gun. Then it spools back a year, to Phil at a funeral with old friends, played by Clarke Peters (The Wire), Sue Johnston, Karl Johnson and Peter Egan. The deceased suffered a painful death, and the pals make a boozy promise to help each other shuffle off this mortal coil if they need to.

From there, you might expect a tear-soaked meditative drama. Well, think again. Yes, Truelove is about love, death and ethics (“Only God can play God”), but it’s also about ageing, agency, marital ennui and late-life mutiny. There’s a frisson between Phil and Ken (Peters), and she balks at attempts by her stodgy husband, Nigel (Phil Davis, playing a mug of Ovaltine in human form), to downsize them into a bungalow. When (spoiler alert) there’s another death, it’s graphic and shocking. Phil isn’t even that sympathetic: she’s moody, restless, acid. A smoker, a rebel, who came of age in the 1960s. A dame with bite.

Few things are more difficult to portray than ordinary stubborn decency, but Toby Jones aces it

A couple of episodes in, developments become somewhat unrealistic, and it’s unclear how deeply Truelove intends to delve into the sensitive, multifaceted dilemmas of assisted dying. Still, the concept is intriguing – a pithy thriller about euthanasia – and the small screen is lit up with grey power. It feels almost radical to see a predominantly older cast hogging all the airtime.

Try getting through the ITV’s four-part drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office without levitating off your sofa cushions in fury. Written by Gwyneth Hughes, it’s the two decades-spanning story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in British history. Detailed very briefly: more than 700 Post Office branch managers across the country were wrongly blamed for vast, unexplained losses caused by the PO’s faulty new Horizon computer system, each of them told they were alone in experiencing any problems. They were harassed into making up crippling deficits out of their own pockets, sacked, taken to court, sometimes imprisoned, their reputations, finances and mental health left in ruins. Some people took their own lives.

The drama focuses on Alan Bates (Toby Jones), a subpostmaster fired for refusing to comply with Post Office diktats, who set about proving the innocence of colleagues like him. Few things are more difficult to portray than ordinary stubborn decency, but Jones aces it. The same is true of Julie Hesmondhalgh, as Bates’s stoically supportive partner, Suzanne. In fact, the entire cast is superb, a veritable who’s who of British talent, whether portraying anguished Post Office workers (Monica Dolan, Will Mellor), those who helped them (Ian Hart, Alex Jennings), or PO head honchos (Lia Williams, Katherine Kelly).

In this intricate story (technical bugs, remote access, cover-ups), even the hard-won court victory that enabled people to quash unfair convictions proves messy. After legal costs, the compensation is inadequate, and some Post Office victims still haven’t received payouts. Dramatically speaking, the series suffers from some overzealous exposition: even accounting for the complexity, it feels at times like being pounded by gigantic dialogue boulders of information. Even so, this is a staunch David and Goliath homage to quiet fortitude triumphing over corporate chicanery, and well worth anyone’s time.

If anything will dispel the murk of January, it’s the second UK series of The Traitors. The BBC One murder mystery weekend-esque gameshow set in a castle in the Scottish Highlands has morphed into a global phenomenon: there are US, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand versions.

By now you know the drill: zhuzhed-up armchair Cluedo with a potential prize pot of £120K. Unsmiling host Claudia Winkleman camping it up in light entertainment Mrs Danvers mode. Contestants, including a clairvoyant and a chess coach, who either become “faithfuls” (banishing suspected “traitors”), or traitors (“murdering” faithfuls). The cloaks. The subterfuge. The dull tasks (the first one has them splashing about in a lake like beginners’ aqua aerobics). The deliciously cliquey/stressful group breakfasts (all-you-can-eat Danish pastries and passive aggression).

Apart from minor tweaks, it looks like business as usual, but I only got to see the opener, so who knows what devilry occurred in the other two episodes that aired later this past week. “You think you know this game but you don’t,” says Winkleman as the contestants gather at the castle aquiver with anticipation at the swishy-cloaked melodrama to come. I do love this ridiculous show.

I also loved the first series of The Tourist, Harry and Jack Williams’s 2022 hallucinatory 2022 thriller, starring Jamie Dornan as Elliot Stanley, an Irish amnesiac waking up in an Australian hospital. Enveloped in threat and mystery, it magnificently melded unease, confusion and jet-black humour.

If it ended ambivalently, the second six-part BBC One series takes Elliot and his lover, former police officer Helen (Danielle Macdonald), to Ireland to solve the mystery of his identity, leaving them scrabbling for survival among feuding crime families.

Series one characters, such as Helen’s diabolical ex, played by Greg Larsen, are thrown in with a sharp Irish cast that includes Olwen Fouéré, Conor MacNeill and Mark McKenna. Once again, Dornan (mercurial, subtle) proves he has more to offer than just slapping sexy handcuffs on to Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Lame.

Gobbling it down (all episodes are available to stream), I’m not sure I love this quite as much as the original. For all the stark beauty of Ireland, I miss the trippy, hazy outback setting. It also feels as if the mystical layer that set the initial series apart is largely missing.

But it’s still strong (dark, funny, lyrical), evolving into a riotous, bloodthirsty saga of identity, Fargo-esque characterisation and relentless stings and twists to the bittersweet end. Figuratively and geographically, you’re left wondering where The Tourist could go next.

Star ratings (out of five)
Mr Bates vs the Post Office
The Traitors
The Tourist

What else I’m watching

Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster
(BBC One)
David Attenborough interviews a team in Dorset as they excavate the remains of a pliosaur (“the tyrannosaurus of the seas”). It’s fascinating and heartwarming, with plenty of on-screen Attenborough asking all the right questions.

Fool Me Once
Thriller from Harlan Coben, starring Richard Armitage, Michelle Keegan and Joanna Lumley, in which a woman sees her husband when he’s supposed to be dead. Mildly deranged but strangely moreish.

Peaky Blinders: Rambert’s The Redemption of Thomas Shelby
(BBC Four)
A chance to experience the remarkable, intense Rambert dance company’s 2022 stage show inspired by Peaky Blinders. Poignantly, it’s narrated by Benjamin Zephaniah, who died last month, and features the voices of TV cast members including the late Helen McCrory.